The St. Louis Health Equipment Lending Program (St. Louis HELP) does exactly what its name says: It lends home medical equipment to people in need, at no cost, through a recycle-and-reuse program. IFF sat down with Executive Director Laura Singer to learn more about how the organization is responding to COVID-19 and how the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) may help them through this moment in history.
IFF: How did COVID-19 and the related shutdowns affect your organization?
Singer: We collect new and used medical equipment, such as beds and canes, and then we clean them up and then loan them out at no cost. Our program does not generate a dime, but we do have costs – rent costs at two locations, staff costs, van costs, insurance. All of those basic expenses have always been covered by our fundraising efforts; that’s basically all I do all day is beg for money. Family foundations were always our strongest donors – followed by individuals and religious groups – but we’ve found that they are saying they aren’t going to give anything this quarter and may not give again until the end of the year. I’m sure that’s because the stock market has been doing SO fabulous lately. I totally understand that, but that means our budget right now is really based on the Ouija board.
And another really huge blow to us was that every year year we have two major area-wide equipment drives where we have U-Hauls at six locations so donors can drop off equipment. We get 40% of our items from those two drives, and they really reduce our costs from sending out trucks all the time for pickups of smaller donations. But now a lot of people don’t want to leave their homes, and they don’t want to drop off things at a group event. The spring drive has already been cancelled, and now we’re not sure if the fall drive will happen.
We also lost 3 weeks of business because of the mandate to shutdown. But we formed a committee to help us establish guidelines and protocols for how to re-open safely. We have a Board president with 35 years experience in a hospital, an RN, a PT, and a palliative care doctor – they are fabulous.
We only had six employees, and we’ve had to furlough two of them. The four remaining staff are now going to both of our sites, 40 miles apart. We’ve tried to reduce costs as much as possible by re-structuring everything, but the hard things – rent, utilities, insurance – are not going away. We also have some special costs that people wouldn’t think of – like maintaining certain kinds of tires on our vans to lift heavy items. You can’t put a hospital bed in a Toyota minivan; the repair costs of our vehicles are not the same as on your own car.
We’re used to it being hard – we started out in 2008 when the economy was at an all-time low. Isn’t that brilliant? I’ve got this idea: let’s start a nonprofit and not charge anything! But we’re going into our 13th year, and demand couldn’t be higher – we can’t even keep up. Nothing we do is sexy. The warehouses aren’t pretty, and our computers only work about half the time – but our phones are ringing 24 hours a day. It’s been challenging to say the least, but I know we’re going to make it because we’re the biggest bunch of hillbillies you ever met.
IFF: Why did you decide to pursue a PPP loan, and what was your experience like in getting it?
Singer: This is something I had thought about doing, but I thought it was just too complicated. I got a lot of emails from different groups about it, and I ignored them. But then I got an email from IFF, and I knew who you were, and there was a huge trust factor there for me. So I contacted IFF, and Gordon helped me out. I said, “I can’t navigate this. I’m too stupid.” And he said: “No, you’re not. You just need someone to help walk you through it.” And he did. He wouldn’t just email me back, he would call me directly. He was so patient and such a help to me.
You guys really saved us. You kept us open for if/when things ever get back to normal. You know, something as simple as a grab-bar can be life-changing – it allows people to maintain their independence, stay in their home, and reduce hospital admissions. You guys helped us continue to give things like that to people in need. It’s not just a free grab bar. It’s independence.
Something as simple as a grab-bar can be life-changing – it allows people to maintain their independence, stay in their home, and reduce hospital admissions. It’s not just a free grab bar. It’s independence.”
IFF: What’s one thing you’ve learned in this climate?
Singer: We used to have nine people at a large building that we couldn’t purchase – it’s a long story. But now we have four people working out of two smaller buildings at two different sides of town. We’ve learned a few things during that transition. Some are silly little things, like how to answer the phones six days a week from two different locations with different phone numbers when you have paired down your staff. Our IT has always been a little clunky, but now we’ve developed a more streamlined system.
But some are more personal and important. The crew that we’ve kept have been extraordinary. I’ve learned that if you give these wonderful people the ability to take a leadership position, they will step up. They were great before, but now it’s like they’re totally new people to me. They feel such pride in what they’re able to do. And now that we’re a smaller circle, we’re also a tighter circle. Everybody takes care of each other. Birthdays are a big deal. Everybody has a say-so in hiring decisions. We exchange ideas over lunch together almost every day.